Come one, come all, the first installment of my T.S. Eliot series is here!
Just to reiterate, T.S. 1888 is a series that I’m going to start on TABL. Each installment will be a review on an Eliot poem and topics such as Modernism, themes, and potential context will talked about. It’s also a reeaaaallyy good idea if you have a copy of the poems that’ll be discussed in these posts so you can read along and understand what I’m talking about, and which lines I’m referring to (because I won’t be posting the whole poems here, only snippets). With your own copy of the poem, you can observe your own findings and interpretations, and most of them should be attainable online (Poetry Foundation, anyone?). These posts will come up once in a while, and you’ll know it’s part of series because I’ll be putting the same graphic on the blog (the one above). So, we will start with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and then we’ll explore his other poems, well-known or not. Now let’s get to it!
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock focuses on the musings of a man in his middle age, and silently vents his frustrations about life, love, loneliness, and growing old as he makes his way towards a tea party. The form of the poem itself can be considered free verse, as there is no set metrical metre, but there are rhymes scattered within the poem, but those themselves are irregular; fragmented, in a typical Modernist manner. Additionally, there are lines that are artfully repeated.
The Italian epigraph of the poem is a passage from Dante’s Inferno; words said by Count Guido da Montefeltro’s eternally damned soul, and is translated as:
‘If I thought my answer were to one who ever could return to the world, this flame should shake no more; but since none ever did return alive from this depth, if what I hear to be true, without fear of infamy I answer thee.’
So it can be stated that the epigraph foreshadows that Prufrock is or will be damned, and perhaps his Hell is on Earth. Prufrock goes on a stroll to an evening gathering, but cannot bring himself to enter and participate. He is an example of a Modernist protagonist because he is enveloped in his despair to the point it is almost crippling. He is tormented by the circumstances he is in, and does not attempt to overcome his insecurities and anxieties, and instead wallows in them without the aim to resolve them.
To roughly describe the Modernist hero, he/she is a protagonist that lacks optimistic and positive traits, and mirror the anxieties that the Modernist artists had felt at this time. Prufrock, in the first line of the poem, beckons an unaddressed person to go with him somewhere; however, it is apparent that this character is alone literally and emotionally. Prufrock gives away some clues as to who he is such as his class and the people that attend the gathering, mentioning twice women talking about Michelangelo in lines 13 and 14, and in lines 35 and 36. This indicates that Prufrock is involved with well-articulated people educated about the arts and others—the bourgeoisie. Eliot implemented many metaphors that indicate Prufrock’s character; although the environment is described by Prufrock in the poem, these descriptions can also reflect back on himself.
For example, in lines 2 and 3 the night sky is described as an etherised patient—Prufrock cannot do what he wants because he is incapacitated by the “ether” that is his anxiety. Additionally, the cat-like fog that is present in the city is described as being yellow in lines 15 and 16—yellow is often associated with cowardice and illness; traits that Prufrock demonstrate with his coyness and mental anguish.
His angst is explicitly revealed in stanza 6 when he arrives outside of the gathering and stalls his entry:
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair –
(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie riche and modest, but asserted by a simple pin –
(They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
In the above passage, he asks himself three times “Do I dare?” This indicates uncertainty from Prufrock as to make a decision. When he asks himself does he dare disturb the universe, he is most likely unsure whether to enter the vicinity and somewhat spoil the overall cheery mood of the gathering with his angst and frustration. Further on, Prufrock expresses his frustrated nature. He is self-deprecating towards the end of the poem, indicating his yield to his doubts and anxieties; he states that he’ll never be Prince Hamlet, but merely an attendant lord, and at times a fool in lines 111 to 119. This indicates Prufrock’s acceptance of mediocrity and does not intend to better himself or strive to improve the outcome of his life. Prufrock is in a state of misery. Prufrock laments his loneliness and frustrations, and just how futile life is; futility of life is often the main theme to Eliot’s works. He stays static, and does not display an optimistic approach to his life and circumstance.
Why would it be his love song though? Perhaps the title of this poem is paradoxical; a love song is filled with adoration for one, yet there isn’t evidence one thing that Prufrock appears to like about himself. Is this to someone? Probably not. His first line ‘Let us go then, you and I,’ is most likely either the narrator breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader, or Prufrock is addressing himself, as he is lonely (a much more tragic possibility, but I like it).
The tail-end of the poem goes like this:
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
The first couple of lines demonstrate Prufrock’s selfconsciousness–he wonders about his appearance, and if he dares to eat a peach. These lines also suggest his woes about ageing, and the peach’s symbolism can be interpreted in a couple of ways. Firstly, the Chinese view peaches as a symbol for longevity or immortality, while in Western settings, particularly in art, peaches can signify virtue/purity. In religious art, however, they can been interpreted as a symbol for salvation. Therefore, the choice of words–dare to eat a peach– are interesting, depending on which interpretation of peaches one goes with; Prufrock is weighing in on whether he should embrace ‘the peach’, be it salvation, virtue, or longevity.
Firstly, the mermaids/sea-girls are figures of fantasy. Additionally, it is thought that the mermaids old-time sailors saw were merely dolphins or similar creature and that their minds were playing tricks on them. This goes to show that mermaids equate to what is not real. Prufrock believes that they won’t sing to him–they’d shun him, implying that even his own imagination and creativity cannot save him now. Mermaids were also believed to cause peril in the sea–from shipwrecks to sailors hurling themselves off the deck, allured by the mermaids. In the poem, the mermaids may also be seen as a symbolism for demise; perhaps Prufrock wants to end it all, but not even his own psyche would allow it.
The very last lines have Prufrock admiring the mermaids ‘in the chambers of the sea . . . . Till human voices wake us, and we drown.’ These lines suggest that Prufrock had once lived in a life of fantasy (thus admiring the mermaids) until reality hit him (the human voices) and he ‘drowns’ (he metaphorically dies and returns to actuality). This suggests that Prufrock may have seen life through rose-tint glasses once upon a time, until someone or something (such as an event) may have given him a dose of the reality elixir, and thus lost the lustre of life he once had. Therefore, the final lines allude to disillusionment: a common theme within Modernist (and definitely Eliot’s) literary works.
To summarize this, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a poem that is narrated by a man dealing with a lack of self-esteem and overall dissatisfaction with life, and shows a glimpse of the emotions that Modernists of that era had felt; this is foreshadowed in the Dante epigraph. There was the growing contempt towards modernity, and a sense of confusion with the sudden advancement and industrialization that was happening, and Prufrock is/was probably a Modernist if he was real person. His anxieties stem from the uncertainty of where is belongs in society, and reduces him to some sort of recluse.
Here’s a list of the academic sources that pertain to Eliot and Modernism (that can prove to be useful for essays and study):
Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems 1909-1962. London: Faber and Faber, 1974. Print.
Faulkner, Peter. The English Modernist Reader: 1910-1930. 1st ed. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1992. Print.
Jain, Manju. A Critical Reading Of The Selected Poems Of T.S. Eliot. 1st ed. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print.
Lucy, Niall. Postmodern Literary Theory. 1st ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. Print.
Mays, J.C.C. “Early Poems: From “Prufrock” To “Gerontion”.” The Cambridge Companion To T.S. Eliot. A. David Moody. 1st ed. Cambridge: Ambridge University Press, 1994. 108-120. Print.
Rosenthal, M.L. The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961. Print.
There we have it, folks! This is simply my reading/interpretation of the poem, but if you have anything to add, or if you view it differently, please share! Happy reading and belated happy new year!